Copying Out the Music: A Composer’s Journal

January 15th, 2013

The composer continues work on ‘Songs of the Earth’ for piano, violin, viola cello and flute. A Composer’s Journal Entries: August 29 – September 27, 2012.

Wednesday, August 29

A beautiful cool day, low seventies. Have the doors and windows open. Looking out into the back gardens on breaks from composing, trying not to wish I could be out walking and working in them.

Still working on IV, trying to capture the shimmering light on the lake in the initial inner sixteenth note passage in the opening piano, immediately following the introduction; decided to give all the sixteenth note inner voice to the piano on the repeat of this section – this piece will be in AB A’B’ form. The first time through the piano and strings will pass the sixteenth notes around, and hopefully it will work. Next I need to write the other inner voices, for both versions of this A section – and then I can copy IV into the main score. At the moment I am thinking of possibly quiet chords in the piano when the strings have the inner line, a countersubject or motive in the strings when the piano has the inner line. It’s a delicate thing because this initial phrase after the introduction is fairly soft, floating – and yet there will be so much motion and so many lines… I will have to keep it all very transparent, in spite of the complexity. The reflection of the moon on the lake, a quiet changing pool of light…

Thursday, August 30

Late afternoon, a beautiful sunny day; just finished writing the inner voices and copying out the main score for IV. Decided to create it as ABA instead of ABAB form – but that could change after I hear it played with all the instruments. There are only a certain number of decisions, any one human being can be expected to make in a single day.

After dinner, will take out another piece in this cycle and start filling in the sketches I made few weeks ago. The Manilla folder holding the remaining sketches has flattened down to about an inch high; the folder with the copied score, and the original sketches for those pieces, is growing in size – at this point the two folders are almost equal in thickness. However, since I left the most unfinished sketches for last, and tore one up – this all will still take some time. I had hoped to be done composing and copying by early fall, but that timeline has shifted – the additional five poems I eventually chose, has put me way behind schedule. Yet the end result will be far better because of those added poems…

Friday, September 7

Have been filling in my sketches to the remaining pieces of this cycle; yesterday began working on XXVI. I have about fifteen pages of pencil sketches, notes and stems, and motives and bar lines strewn everywhere. William’s poem is:

Dry, stilled air speeds songs,Swiftly through ringing gorges…Crying earth to sleep.

Decided to use fragments from the other movements of this haiku cycle for this poem, and have also written many pages of new material. This new material includes a Hymn of the Earth, a line or two long, to represent the gorge itself. This Hymn will be used as a motive, and reappear in various forms throughout. Hopefully the new musical material will distinguish this piece as its own creation and being – and the old material bring recognition and memories of earlier movements of the cycle. This is the second to last poem of Hurley’s set of poems, and my idea is to somehow musically connect the cycle in XXVI. The last poem is:

Last days of Autumn…Content in its soft singing …Walking on and on.

William’s ending words Walking on and on suggest a new start, something separate from all that has gone before…

In any case, despite the many pages of my sketch for XXVI, all the various new motives and melodies, the many old fragments from earlier movements of this cycle – I still am missing something to hold the piece together… And so I will go back to the piano and keep working until ideas emerge, until the music appears, is remembered from somewhere deep inside my own being and then written down on blank manuscript paper. The stack of ms paper, my black ballpoint pen, ruler, and small bottle of White-out – the composer’s tools – are all patiently waiting.

At the moment I am considering using the Hymn I wrote as the main theme and motive, possibly as a sort of chaconne or passacaglia, at least at times, for stretches, running through and connecting this movement. Since we are dealing with an image of the wind racing through a gorge – musical fragments, perhaps overlapping and/or superimposed, seem best, at least at the moment. However, ideas and conceptions are one thing – the music will write itself in the end… The composer and the music must work together in this creation of sound and space and time.

Saturday, September 8

Added a bell-like passage in the piano for XXVI and will write a chorale in the other instruments later. The bells will continue for quite a while; I will keep adding voices in the piano, until there are crashing chords, sounds ringing through the gorge, ringing, ringing…

Starting working on X, a revised sketch. Added some new themes. Suddenly it is a stormy, rainy day – thunderstorms and a possible tornado. A good day for composing the bells’ section of XXVI…

10 p.m.

Worked on the piano’s bell section, which I think will end the piece. I might superimpose other instruments over the piano, I haven’t decided. But I think this movement of the cycle will end with held piano tones, as I have done in other pieces in the past, including earlier pieces in this haiku cycle – this time the bell section. The sounds of the piano strings, with the pedal held for a long length of time, can be astounding. A small choir in the strings of the piano appears magically, ringing quietly, the harmonics arising of their own accord, the result of natural law. That held sound in the piano strings can sound like an unearthly cry, voices in harmony from another realm i.e. Crying earth to sleep, the last line of William Hurley’s poem. I have not heard other composers use this technique, but it can be very very powerful and magical. I first used it in For Two Pianos, many many years ago; and for different reasons. I used this same piano technique in The Cry of the World, one of the movements of For Two Pianos, and the three movement piece was dedicated to the innocent victims of World War II. This time the held tones will represent the gorge and the songs of the gorge crying earth to sleep. And of course I will use different notes and patterns from the ones in For Two Pianos – this time the small piano string choir will not be as haunting. This effect does not always record well, the sounds can get lost on recordings – but in live concerts the effect is very striking.

Time to go downstairs and continue filling in my sketches…

Thursday, September 13

Another cold, clear night – a hint of fall. Have been working on my sketches; tonight X, a few small changes here and there. I think tomorrow I will be ready to copy it into the main score.

The remaining movements of the cycle are falling into place nicely, and hopefully the entire score will be copied out within a few weeks. There is no real rush to finish this cycle, there is no set date for the first performance nor for the recording. However, if we composers put a piece aside, often we can lose the thread of inspiration that is essential for creation… the ideas are gone, gone, gone – we have inwardly moved on to another place. And when that happens we cannot go back, we cannot retrace our steps, and it is fruitless to even try.

On the other hand, often when we put a piece aside, when we go back to finish it – the ideas fall into place quickly and easily.

For me it is a matter of intuition, whether to continue working on a piece or not… In this case, for this chamber music cycle, my intuition says to continue until it is completed. If I should run out of ideas, then I will stop writing for a while. But until then – I feel compelled to allow the musical ideas already written, or held in thought, to unfold, to manifest… to self-create…

Sunday, September 16

Stayed overnight at Windgarth House last night; calm, peaceful, the Big Dipper hanging over the road to the Point. Have been filling in the sketches to XXVII and deciding which instruments play what, where.

Tuesday, September 18

Finished copying XXVII into the main score. Now trying to decide which of the remaining movements I want to spend the next few days with.

Wednesday, September 19

A cold day, not even sixty degrees, and a much colder night, almost frost temperatures. Too cold to work in the gardens tonight, tomorrow should be warmer. Began filling in my sketches for XVII and copying it into the main score last night; continued working on it today.

This movement is fairly complicated, and there are still many decisions to make, new passages to write. At the moment I seem to have too many ideas rather than too few – and so the problems are more ones of choosing than ones of creating, finding ideas. Here it is again a matter of seeing the Essence of the music, the overall view. Most of the remaining pages are already sketched out – but do I want to end the piece with a long piano cadenza, as in my original sketch – or should I add more instruments? How am I going to arrive at the second major theme – as in my original sketch, or with an introduction, or a transitional passage, to build a bridge to it; should I extend the second major theme, or the piano cadenza; should I take motives from the last pages and turn them into themes, to use either as separate passages or within the cadenza; should I begin the piano cadenza from the second theme, as in my sketch, or bring the piece back down to quiet chords then slowly build to the richness of sound of the cadenza. The composer is a writer, an editor, a splicer, a critic, a questioner – and the first and last audience.

Saturday, September 22

A rainy night; crickets. Left the back door open so I could listen. Continued working on XVII; wrote a long cadenza in the piano as a prelude to the sun appearing. Will add strings at a certain point in the music, towards the end of the cadenza. Stayed with changing quarter note chords throughout, and introduced new keys in sudden, ephemeral ways – this is all part of the balancing of the Earth image of William’s poem. As I wrote this cadenza, the idea that guided me was that the Earth, on some layer of being and dimension, radiates all notes, all keys, simultaneously, in one Unity of Sound and Being – as I assume do all living, sentient creatures and beings. In this passage hopefully it becomes apparent that all sounds co-exist simultaneously – and the various chords and keys manifest or are recognized by us sentient beings fleetingly as they appear in the physical realm of sound… Manifested, fluid harmonies, emerging and then receding back into that primordial – or one could say Divine – Ocean of Sound….

This balancing of the Earth itself in XVII is not truly the meaning of Hurley’s haiku poem. As in IV and XI, I have chosen to represent the planet we call Earth, rather than the earth/soil of his poems – a composer’s prerogative.

Wednesday, September 26

Worked on XVII, filling in my sketches and copying out the main score. Got stuck on the last few pages of XVII and decided to work on XXVI, the second to last piece in this cycle. As I have already mentioned, I am not a composer who can endlessly stare at the unfinished score hoping for a miracle, life is too short – and we composers can lose the thread of inspiration if we tether ourselves to one place, one musical conundrum, for too long.

Thought about XXVI, the overall form – and wrote inner voices for the Hymn of the Earth, which is written as a tonal hymn to thread through this movement. The major motives and melodies are written, and I still inwardly agree with my original idea of using material from the rest of the cycle. In a way, an Epilogue, a way of tying this cycle together musically and thematically.

The ringing gorges of Hurley’s poem will be musically represented by the Hymn of the Earth theme, and also by the bell theme/motive that will run through the entire piece, here and there, sometimes fragmented, sometimes appearing softly as though heard from a distance, at other times full sound; decided to at times, bring the bell and hymn themes in softly and then bring them to the forefront of the music with a crescendo… to then recede back into the distance. Well, as always, there are many possibilities. The songs of William’s beautiful poem can be new and old musical material, and I will fragment these melodies and harmonies at times, possibly sometimes superimpose them. Here again Hurley writes earth but I am writing the music to represent the planet Earth, as well as the earth beneath our feet, the soil we walk on.

Today I might work on the bell themes, and write variations I can later use. These are not physical bells, but are more the ringing of the gorge itself, the Earth itself. This ringing, combined with the bells of the gorge and the other fragmented old themes from earlier in the cycle – and new themes and material – are the essence of XXVI. Now to find the overall form, write it all down on paper – and then into the main score. At the moment I am trying to decide how to begin this movement. In Hurley’s poem, the songs are already speeding through the gorge as the poem opens…

Thursday, September 27

Wrote another bell-like theme, motive, today for XXVI – this time with descending octaves in the piano. I now have five different components to work with: the initial bell theme, the new bell theme with descending octaves, the Hymn of the Earth, and the various melodies, new and old. Tonight or tomorrow I will begin putting it all together…

12:12 a.m.

Have been working on XXVI, trying to complete a final sketch. Rather I am trying to piece all the pages of original sketches for XXVI, as well as writing some connecting material and missing inner lines. Finally I took out a pair of scissors and a roll of scotch tape and now I am cutting and pasting as I go – I do not have the patience to recopy passages from my original sketches into this final score. The ideas are coming in too quickly for that; there is no time to recopy, I would lose my ideas. Split the Hymn of the Earth into three parts; am introducing it in fragments; might introduce the initial bell theme over the hymn. So many ideas, and I am starting to see the entire piece. Suddenly it all seems so simple, whereas yesterday it was all a miasma, or stated more positively – a vast mystery.

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